Friday, December 19, 2008

The Remarkable Consistency of...Bruce Boudreau

We've commented in the past on the "remarkable consistency" of Alex Ovechkin since he came into the league, but he's not alone among the Caps in possesing the "consistency" gene. Since taking over behind the Caps' bench, Bruce Boudreau has compiled a record of 57-27-10. A mighty fine record it is, but it is in what makes up the pieces of that record that is just as amazing. If we break the 94 games into ten-game segments, it looks like this:

1st 10: 6-3-1 (13 points)
2nd 10: 4-3-3 (11)
3rd 10: 7-3-0 (14)
4th 10: 5-3-2 (12)
5th 10: 5-4-1 (11)
6th 10: 9-1-0 (18)
7th 10: 6-3-1 (13)
8th 10: 6-2-2 (14)
9th 10: 5-5-0 (10)
10th 10: 4-0-0 (8, to date)

Through 94 games, Boudreau has led the Caps on a 108-point-per-82 game pace. The Caps' 20-10-3 record this afternoon is a 107-point pace. In this metric, he's a metronome.

This guy's good. But then again, you probably knew that.

Our Long North American Nightmare is Over

The white smoke has issued forth from the Sundin Camp, “habemus consultum” (our apologies to the Latin scholars out there).

And the decision is… Vancouver.

Our old pal from New York had a ready explanation for the decision:

"Mats Sundin made like Woodward and Bernstein following Deep Throat's advice. He followed the money. "

An ironic turn of phrase, given that the original “Deep Throat” – W. Mark Felt, Sr. – passed away yesterday. Nonetheless, it probably has never occurred to the likes of Larry Brooks, whose vision extends only to edges of Manhattan Island, that Sundin was always a better fit for the Canucks in a hockey sense. New York already had splurged last year on centers in Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. That Drury is having something of an off year (he’s on a pace for fewer than 50 points, which would challenge his career low) does not change the fact that someone was going to find a new position to make room for Sundin, and what’s more, the Rangers would have to make room on the roster by moving players to accommodate his pro-rated salary.

On the other hand, Vancouver was well under the salary cap (more than $7 million, according to the Vancouver Sun), so they could accommodate the pro-rated portion of Sundin’s salary without undue effects on the roster. And, the Canucks actually needed a center. Henrik Sedin has 28 points in 32 games, which isn’t terrible, but he has only four goals among those points, but no other center on the Vancouver roster has as many as 20 points.

If Sundin was following the money, was he doing it at the expense of a chance to win? That’s not an idle consideration for a player who will be 38 in less than two months. Both Vancouver and the Rangers are solidly in the playoff mix at the moment. The difference is that the Canucks have been doing it without Roberto Luongo in goal for almost a month. His return can only make the Canucks stronger. Vancouver might have the rougher road to travel, what with San Jose and Detroit in their side of the draw, but the Rangers are arguably no better than the third best team in their own division (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia laying a claim to being superior teams), and have won an inordinate number of games via gimmicky means (8-1 in shootouts). The Rangers, even with Sundin, are no lock to make the playoffs and would probably not be considered a good bet to advance far, unless goalie Henrik Lundqvist is hot.

If Sundin was about the money, then why, as reported by Pierre LeBrun at, would he have taken a discount to allow the Canucks to shop for more parts? Had the Rangers signed Sundin, even at the pro-rated lesser amount they could offer, and even if he had taken a similar discount to that which he is reported to have taken in Vancouver, would the Rangers have the flexibility to add a part here or there? The arithmetic suggests that they would not, not easily at least.

But at the end of the day, this is a pretty bad soap opera. Sundin begged off on waiving a no-trade clause last year to remain a Toronto Maple Leaf. Then, he sits out a third of a season to ponder offers as if he was a center-for-hire. Toronto was denied an opportunity to improve their roster out of some version of, what does one call it, “loyalty?” And then that is tossed out the window by virtue of the slow-motion train wreck that has been this interminable drawn out saga of “Days of Our Mats?” Taking the better dollar offer doesn’t do anything to polish the tarnished reputation, either.

The only question of any relevance going forward is, “will Mats matter?” He’s probably not going to dress for a game until perhaps the game on December 26th against Edmonton, which will be game 36 on the Canuck schedule. And, given the hiatus, it’s difficult to believe he’s going to be a difference maker right out of the gate. He might be the most consistent point-a-game player of his generation – it does not make him Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin when it comes to offensive fireworks. If he plays the last 47 games, 40 points seems to be the ceiling here. By himself, Sundin isn’t going to have the effect that the return of Roberto Luongo will have.

This deal probably says more about Vancouver and general manager Mike Gillis than it does about Sundin. Despite the lengthy wait while Sundin was pondering his choices, despite the growing sentiment that Sundin would pick the Rangers in the end, Vancouver was steady and persistent in pursuing the player. The offer doesn’t seem to have changed since first laid on the table months ago. It speaks to how the Canucks might move forward – quietly, persistently, doggedly – in using that money Sundin left on the table.

If you’re going to “follow the money,” as Larry Brooks hinted, follow that money and watch what the Canucks do in finding those last pieces in a couple of months. Those might be the more important moves in the end.

A TWO-point night: Caps 4 - Blues 2

Too &#@* cute.

If not for some fine play by the lower half of the forward lines, the Caps would have let a point or two slip away. The play of the third and fourth lines, though, was enough to push the Caps to a harder-than-expected 4-2 win over the St. Louis Blues at Verizon Center.

The stars of this game weren’t the stars, but rather the guys who don’t usually get the ink after the game – Boyd Gordon, Eric Fehr, and David Steckel all had assists tonight, but that doesn’t tell the story. Those three, with Donald Brashear and Matt Bradley, looked like the only guys who wanted to pay a price for 60 minutes. That is not to denigrate the effort of a Viktor Kozlov, who earned the first star on two goals and an assist, or Tomas Fleischmann, who notched his 11th goal. But Kozlov’s second goal was the result of Gordon driving hard to the net with the puck (Kozlov sweeping up the trash that Blue’s goalie Ben Bishop couldn’t pick up), and Fleischmann’s goal – the game-winner as it turned out – was the product of a superb pass from Fehr from along the right wing boards.

As for the stars, this was not their night, despite Alex Ovechkin’s 20th goal. Ovechkin did not have a lot of scoring chances as the Blues clogged his usual skating and shooting lanes. Alexander Semin gave every cause to think that the worst thing that happened to him this week was making that behind the back pass for an Ovechkin goal a couple of nights ago. He spent most of tonight looking to recapture the magic and ended up sending a lot of passes hither and yon, anywhere but onto a teammate’s stick. Nicklas Backstrom completed the hat trick of headscratching by being mostly invisible tonight, despite getting an assist on the first Kozlov goal.

The real star, though, might have been the young man in net playing in his second NHL game. Simeon Varlamov might not have faced quite the same flurries of shots that his counterpart Ben Bishop faced (the Caps had 13 missed shots and 16 others blocked – 15 of those 29 misfires came in the first ten minutes of the game, in addition to four actual shots), but he had to deal with more sustained pressure. He also had the save of the game with under a minute to go in the second period and the Blues trying to halve a 3-1 lead for the Caps. Keith Tkachuk carried the puck down the right side, then cut all the way through the middle of the ice above the circles in the offensive zone. With David Perron standing directly in front of Varlamov at the top of the crease, Tkachuk let fly with a snap shot that somehow Varlamov saw and gloved with his mask in Perron’s belt buckle. Varlamov would also have highlight saves on David Backes and Barrett Jackman early in the third, and would foil a breakaway by Tkachuk with just under six minutes left in regulation, but that save as the second period was dying off killed any St. Louis momentum that they might have had going into the third, had that shot found the net.

It was also a difficult night for the officials. Kelly Sutherland looked for all the world as if he was channeling “Forty Minute” Andy Van Hellemond. Players could club one another, run one another, and generally create mayhem, but the slightest tug on fabric was cause for two minutes. The game almost got out of hand entirely in the third period when Alexander Semin was tripped, then cross-checked to the ice by David Backes. When Bruce Boudreau was told that it was a dive by Semin and responded that “that’s why he’s in the dressing room,” he was whistled for an “abuse of officials” penalty.

It had the look of a game that might have been played circa 2002 when a lot of chippy nonsense goes on, left alone by the referees, then explodes in the third period. It almost did explode when Alex Ovechkin came from the other side of the ice to stand up for Semin. What he was doing in that situation is probably a credit to him as a teammate, but that just isn’t Ovechkin’s job. What is telling about the referees’ performance was that of the ten minor penalties called, all but the abuse of officials and playing of the puck in a restricted zone charged to Varlamov were obstruction penalties – there was not one penalty of aggression called in this game, and there was enough that could have been called on both sides. Sutherland ought to have the price of a ticket deducted from his paycheck for this one.

Here are some interesting (well, at least to us) numbers…

Five power plays, four total shots, three of them by Ovechkin (Tom Poti had the other one). Sort of captures the problem with this game in a nutshell…not enough guys paying a price.

Six… the number of blocked shots by Milan Jurcina.

Three… the number of blocked shots his partner, Karl Alzner, had. Combined, the two had roughly half of the Caps' total (20).

27… that was the number of faceoffs Jay McClement took for the Blues (winning 15). He took all those draws in a total of under 17 minutes of play. Does the term, “one trick pony” come to mind?

Boyd Gordon, who has put together some pretty good games lately, was splattered all over the score sheet tonight… an assist, three shots, a takeaway, a hit, a couple of blocked shots, and eight wins in 14 draws.

Varlamov was excellent in the first couple of periods with controlling the redirection of shots. He looked very purposeful in moving shots off to the corners or to open areas. He seemed to lose a little of that in the latter stages of the game. But the one thing we paid special attention to was whether or not he’d lose his focus after taking the playing the puck in a restricted zone penalty – he didn’t. So far he’s stopped 61 of 64 shots (.953) in two games. We’d say his focus is pretty good.

Mike Green missed large chunks of the second period (he did not play in the last 4:01) and the third period (he sat for the last ten minutes). It appears his shoulder was reinjured. Add that to Semin’s suffering some further abuse to his back, and suddenly that game on Saturday afternoon against the Flyers looks even more challenging.

Speaking of challenging and the game on Saturday, the Caps will be moving up in weight class and had better find a way to set this lackadaisical play aside. It’s one thing to beat the Islanders and Blues with a “B” effort. If that’s the level to which they play in Philly, it won’t be pretty for the visitors, especially since the Flyers were abused by Montreal tonight, 5-2. For now, though, it’s two more points in the bank, five wins in a row, and seven in the last eight games, which is never a bad thing.